The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Olympic Observations

No baseball today - just the Olympics. I'm not even going to talk about baseball in the Olympics, because I'm still too stunned that the Americans are not even a part of the event. But there is a lot else going on that's interesting:
  • Around this time every four years ago I find myself watching gymnastics. At any other time, I can’t be bothered by the sport. Even if it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and the only thing on television is gymnastics, I won’t watch it. During the Olympics though, I really enjoy it. This week’s men’s team competition was particularly interesting. Granted, the possibility of the US Men’s team winning a medal (which they ultimately did – the silver) helped to hold my interest, but overall I was overwhelmed by the sport itself.

    When I watch something like swimming or track and field, I think to myself “I could do that.” Sure, I couldn’t make it across the pool as fast as Gary Hall, or run as fast as Lauryn Williams, but with a little practice I could do it well enough to beat most of the people in my neighborhood.

    Gymnastics is a different story though (10-meter diving too). I can’t quite imagine myself swinging around on the high bar, let alone propelling myself into a release or a dismount. Just thinking about it makes me nervous. Actually doing it would surely require a lengthy hospital stay. I guess that’s part of the appeal of the Olympics – watching some of the world’s best athletes do things that you couldn’t possibly imagine.

  • Replacing Gary Hall with Michael Phelps in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay over the weekend was wrong. Up front I’ll admit that I went to high school with Gary, and that I’m a much bigger fan of his than Phelps. But even to an unbiased observer, it should seem clear that how the whole situation was handled was wrong. The American delegation – be it the swimming faction, USOC, sponsors, or a combination – determined long before these games began who the heroes would be. Gary Hall was apparently not amongst the select few, while Michael Phelps clearly was.

    Granted, Phelps is obviously a talented swimmer and will likely go down in history as one of the all time greats. Visa and any number of other corporate sponsors have a whole lot riding on his success. Still, he hasn’t accomplished – at least not at the Olympic level – what some of his teammates have, most notably Gary Hall.

    It says a lot about what we value in this country when qualifiers for certain events are passed over in favor of other athletes who may have an outside shot at setting a mythical record, especially when the athlete who is passed over has quite a story of his own to tell. Sure, Gary Hall didn’t come into these Olympics with the opportunity to win eight gold medals like Phelps did (although Phelps only had the opportunity to win eight by displacing a swimmer from the relay team who had qualified to race in the event, when Phelps had not).

    Gary did come into these games with Olympic (having competed in Atlanta and Sydney), eight medals (four gold, three silver, and one bronze), and a lineage of Olympic success (both his father and grandfather swam in the Olympics). In addition to all of that, Gary’s story could be an inspiration to millions of people if anyone was able to hear about it. In 1999 Gary was diagnosed with Type-I diabetes. At the time, it was widely believed that his career as a competitive swimmer was over. Obviously it wasn’t. Gary, with the help of some progressive treatment, came back and with a vengeance. Since his diagnosis Gary has won five Olympic medals and has an opportunity to win a sixth later this week.

    But apparently because he speaks his mind and isn’t backed by corporate sponsors, Gary’s story will go largely untold during these games.

  • For further evidence of misdeeds like this in swimming, check out Jenny Thompson on the US Women’s team. Jenny was inserted into a relay so that she could set a women’s record for gold medals won. The only problem was that Jenny blew a lead in her leg of the race, costing the US team a medal. Next time let’s go with the four best swimmers – the folks who earned their shot – and not take for granted that the US is entitled to things like medals in swimming. That does a dis-service to the athletes who earn their slots in races and is decidedly un-Olympic-like. The Olympics are supposed to be about the best competing against the best, without things like politics getting in the way. Letting swimmers like Michael Phelps and Jenny Thompson into races they didn’t qualify for is the exact opposite of that.

  • Don’t confuse the 2004 US Men’s Basketball team with a Dream team. Sure, the story of the men’s basketball team is very disappointing. But confusing them with a Dream Team is a completely different issue. While the twelve athletes competing for the United States are excellent basketball players, they are not the top twelve Americans who play in the NBA. Actually, they’re far from it. Most notably missing from this year’s team are super-stars such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, Kevin Garnett, and many others. Sharpshooters such as Allan Houston and Brent Barry were also not made a part of the team. The US team is filled with great athletes, but great athletes can’t always overcome solid defense, aggressive zone defenses, and strong outside shooting.

    In my opinion, having a different roster in Athens could make the results very different for the United States team. Even then, comparing any US Men’s Basketball team to the original Dream Team is an unfair comparison.
The original dream team, which in case you didn’t know it took the court in the 1992 games in Barcelona and won by an average of more than 40 points per game,
featured the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone,
Charles Barkley, David Robinson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing,
Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, and one college kid from Duke.

Unlike future versions of the team, the original Dream Team featured a line-up
that was nearly exclusively made up of future Hall of Famers (Chris Mullin and
Christian Laettner are likely the only exceptions). Everyone knew this
team was made up of Hall of Famers at the time. Fans and even players (one
opponent was reported to have asked a teammate on the bench to snap a photo of
him guarding Magic Johnson during play) were in awe of the collection of talent
the US team had assembled. It wasn’t only that the team was absurdly
talented, it was that the club was made up of established stars in their
primes. Most of the players were in their late 20s, prime age for a
basketball player (notables in this group included Jordan, Barkley, Malone,
Robinson, and Pippen). Other stars, who were in their 30s, were old by
standard basketball ages, but in terms of savvy and knowledge of the game, they
could still hold their own against anyone in the world (this group included
Johnson, Bird, Stockton, and Drexler).

The best measure of the 1992 Dream Team is how they would match up to any other team at any other time. Arguably, the 1992 Dream Team could hold their own against any team assembled from any (or all) other era. The 1992 team could start Magic Johnson at point guard, Michael Jordan at off guard, Charles Barkley at small
forward, Karl Malone at power forward, and David Robinson at center. Other than Robinson, where there’s more of an argument, you’re likely looking at the best player at each position in the history of the NBA. Some would argue that John Stockton was a better true point guard than Magic, but Stockton’s already on your bench. Some would also prefer the all around game of Pippen to Barkley, but you’ve already got him too.

At center you could start Ewing over Robinson, but others would argue for Kareem, Shaq, Bill Russell, George Mikan, Hakeem Olajuwan (although he was probably still Akeem back then), or a number of others. Still, I’d take my chances with the 1992 team against any other team that you could assemble. They’d have to face off on some sort of a computer or video game simulation, but I still think the 1992 team is the ultimate Dream Team.

Who from the 2004 “Dream Team” would you pick to even sit on the 1992 team’s bench? Maybe Tim Duncan, but that’s about it.

Other stuff:

  • The live, plausibly live, and obviously taped coverage makes the programming confusing and sometimes un-enjoyable. Rarely do I like to watch something when I already know the outcome, but I’m also suspect about watching something on tape that’s made to look live. Are the announcers really announcing as it happens, or do they have the benefit of going back after the fact and making their comments after they know how everything turns out?

  • If you haven’t heard about her already, keep an eye out for Lauryn Williams during the track events. She’ll be running in the 100-meter dash, having earned her spot by beating out Marion Jones and all the others – before drug and doping allegations had to be brought into the mix. So she’ll be racing for the title of World’s Fastest Woman.

    There are lots of reasons to cheer for Williams: most everyone can relate to her – she’s a typical American girl from a small town. She’s also overcome some adversity in her young life; her father suffers from leukemia and regularly receives chemotherapy treatment. She’s also supposed to be very pleasant and very much enjoying the whole Olympics experience, which is something you can never get enough of.

    I’ll be cheering for her when she’s on the blocks later this week.


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